Having Your Cake and Eating It Too

This blog got very popular very quickly.  I have no illusions that it is about anything that I am doing.  I am certain that it is all about the shared anxiety we have as parents of soon-to-be-school aged kids.  I have only gotten one community submission on the emotional aspect of this process, but, as a result of finding this blog, many strangers and friends are reaching out to me to share their fears and anxieties without formally submitting stories.

The conversations often go something like this.  “We love our Philadelphia neighborhood, but we hate our local public school.  We believe in public school, just not the public school option available to us here.  We can’t afford private schools [or we don’t think that they are the best option].  We can’t count on getting into a charter school, so we are [moving/biting the bullet and paying for private school/begrudgingly choosing our local public school].”  This last part is usually said with a resigned sigh.  One such friend (let’s call him “Steve”) suggested to me the other night that their decision to move to Lower Merion was not about weighing values, it was about their family coming to terms with which values were the most important.

I have a Master’s in psychology, though I have been out of the field for a long time and do not consider myself to be an expert by any means.  One of the theories that really stuck with me is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Essentially the theory states that there are levels of human needs, where each level is required before you can think of reaching the next level.  For example, a person has to have food, clothing, and shelter before he can be expected to develop higher needs like intimacy, morality, and ‘self actualization.’

Steve suggested that a similar paradigm can be applied to the selection of a school; that as parents we have a hierarchy of values, or, specific to this process, school choice values.  Steve (and I) want to come up with a perfect situation that match all of our families’ needs and values, but perfect is just not possible.  For many of us, this may be the most challenging values question our (presumably young) families have had to face.  Somewhere we have to compromise–Select an inferior school in order to stay in a house/neighborhood?  Make the financial sacrifice of private school?  Leave the home/neighborhood we love?  Our school choices most likely involve our core values, questions of where we want to live, issues of money, and many more factors, each unique to every family.  You can’t send your kid to a school, public or private, with an add-on option of a drama program or a nice racial balance.  We’re not choosing cars where we can easily opt for leather seats and a sunroof.  What if you think that Germantown Friends is the best school out there, but you also believe that integrated language immersion is important to you?  Sorry.  You are out of luck.  Ultimately your family has to make a choice of which values are the most important and decide to live with that decision.  Different families will have to rank their values, and each of us will do so differently.  And that’s OK!

I want to share another interesting point that was offered to me by Steve upon reading my first draft of this post.  The process of exploring schools offers a profound opportunity parents to look within to discover what one’s family values really are.  It’s possible to “coast” for years based on a belief about what one’s values are (Edgar Schein’s “espoused values”).  Done right, the school choice process is an opportunity to clarify the real values (Schein’s “values in use”).

My only advice, having spoken with Steve and having heard at least a dozen stories like this–don’t make the decision because of what other people are doing or what you read on this blog.  Make your choice yourselves because you are the ones that will have to live with it.  Don’t simply attend the school that is the path of least resistance.  Go to open houses, research your school choices and talk to parents.  As parents, be honest with yourselves about what matters most about a school and do what it takes to make those primary values a reality.

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